381. Memorandum From Jack Matlock of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane)1

SUBJECT

  • Report of Chernenko Death

You will have seen the report2 [less than 1 line not declassified] indicating that, [1½ lines not declassified] Chernenko had died but the news was being withheld until after the holiday (International Women’s Day). (The motivation cited is plausible, since this is a big holiday in the Soviet Union and is considered a joyful one.)

There is, however, no other indication that Chernenko has died, except for an alert originating with BBC, which could have been asked to monitor broadcasts by the UK government on the basis of the same report that we have. If the Soviets have decided to withhold the infor[Page 1415]mation for a day, however, one would not expect to see indications in the media, and as of noon today there have been no signs of unusual programming. More significant perhaps is the report that the Shcherbitsky delegation here has done nothing to alter their travel plans.3 (It is virtually inconceivable that Shcherbitsky would not be notified if Chernenko had in fact died.)

Fritz Ermarth, the Agency’s NIO for the Soviet Union, believes that there is no more than a 50/50 chance that the report of Chernenko’s death is correct, and I concur.

However that may be, this report serves as a reminder that we may very well be faced with Chernenko’s death without advance notice. Therefore, the question of whether or not the President attends the funeral will arise once again. While we cannot anticipate all the particulars which may be relevant at the time the event occurs, it would probably be prudent to discuss the matter with the President.

It seems to me that arguments for and against the President’s attendance are fairly evenly balanced, and I would not be inclined to come down hard on either side. On the positive side one can say that our relations started to be more civil under Chernenko than under his predecessors, and also that without a KGB background Chernenko is marginally more savory than Andropov was. This makes it somewhat easier for the President to be seen honoring him. The President’s attendance at the funeral would also disarm those critics who accuse him of not doing enough to communicate with the Soviet leaders.

On the other hand, there are no strong substantive reasons for him to go. The precedent has already been established for the Vice President to do this duty, and there will certainly be no offense if he goes once again. Any conversation the President would have with a successor would necessarily be short, and there are arguments for waiting until a more substantive summit can be arranged.

If the President is interested in considering attendance at the funeral, we should give some thought to how the trip and announcement should be handled in order to maximize the advantages. Obviously, we should do so in the most discreet fashion.

Recommendation:

That you encourage the President to consider what his position should be in regard to attending Chernenko’s funeral, and if he is inclined to go this time to let you know so some very discreet contingency planning can be done.4

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, USSR Subject File, Chernenko’s Death—Miscellaneous 03/10/1985. Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for action.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. After meeting with Reagan on March 7 (see Document 378), Shcherbitsky traveled to Texas and then California.
  4. McFarlane initialed his approval of the recommendation.